Beyond Prescription, Part 4

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Tensions, Texts of Comparison, Twitter, and Emma Lou Thayne

After finishing with a reading of Timothy Liu’s short poem, “The Tree that Knowledge Is”—a reading based in and flowing from a nodal model of Mormon culture—I fully intended to move into an extended exploration of Waterman’s suggestions for Mormon criticism: 1) read with an eye toward the plurality of modern identity, focusing particularly on the tensions this multiplicity creates within the text and between the text and the culture it springs from (which opens the way to engage Terryl Givens’ critical taxonomy from People of Paradox) and 2), “[i]nformed by cultural studies/new literary historicism methodologies, […] place […] [Mormon literature] in conversation with a number of other contemporary texts to examine ways […] [this literature] help[s] explain Mormon—and […] [any other aspect of cultural identity]—experience at a certain historical moment.”

But my intentions have changed, partially because of several Twitter-sations I’ve been involved in lately with MoJo (@MoriahJovan), Theric (@thmazing), and William (@motleyvision) about Mormon lit. In fact, Saturday I came to this realization (in a series of Tweets): after wondering how the Mormon literary community has “been having the same critical conversation for 30 years,” I pursued the thought that part of this may stem from the relative invisibility of the community’s non-prescriptive critical cache—that is, the offline venues through which Mormon literary criticism has developed/been presented and published. Dialogue, Irreantum, and Sunstone contain some of this work, but I sense I’m missing something because I don’t have access to the thirty years worth of proceedings from the AML annual meeting.

As a corollary to this epiphany, I realized that, for some reason, much of the online conversation about Mormon lit centers on drawing boundaries for the enterprise rather than on discussing specific works in a critical way. And, more importantly, that I need to spend more time exploring specific works of Mormon lit. So with this in mind, I’m springboarding into that renewed commitment today by (re)posting a short reading I offered on my own blog of Emma Lou Thayne’s poem, “The Rose Jar,” a text ripe with the tensions of memory and community and that I’ve read against another text of similar ripeness.

And with that: on we go.

* * * *

Disturbing the dust on a bowl on rose leaves…

-T.S. Eliot, “,” line 17.

In the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” the poet muses on the interconnections and “unredeemab[ility]” of time (line 5): “What might have been,” he says, “is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in the world of speculation” (6-8), the business of imagination and memory. He opens the door to this possibility when he hears

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. (11-5)

The poet’s job, then, this implies, is to pursue the footfalls of memory into places we’ve never been. “But to what purpose,” he asks, does “[d]isturbing the dust on a[n imagined] bowl of rose-leaves” serve (16-7)? Why pursue these “echoes / [that i]nhabit the garden[?] Shall we [indeed] follow” them “through the [“¦] gate” of meaning; “[i]nto our first world, shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?” (17-8, 20-2). And yet the voyage into and through deception, he suggests, is the end “which is always present” (48). So perhaps, though the past is ultimately “unredeemable,” we can redeem ourselves, our identities, as the poet’s efforts suggest, in the myriad possible passageways of and rhetorical passages written by memory.

Emma Lou Thayne takes this poetic cue in “The Rose Jar” wherein she quite literally (if we can take her at her word) disturbs the dust in her grandma’s jar of rose petals, stirring up the fragrance of rose and memory as she runs her fingers and her mind over the intricate surface of the “four inch cloisonne [jar] on pointed golden legs / fat as a Buddha tummy” (lines 9-10). Finding this jar in the “cedar drawer” of her “Grandma’s standing metal trunk” (1-2), she enters the intersection of several memories, some her own, some others’. The cedar musk reminds her of “some Arabian tale read by Father / in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight” (5-6); the rose petals call forth “five generations of fragile crinkles” in lives “once supple, fresh,” but now only “fragile” memories (7-8); the jar itself inspires visions of “centuries of Chinese hav[ing] their way” in an intricate culture, their “careful hands […] pluck[ing] each [intricate] piece in place” (18-9); and the fragrance of it all, of this “holy mash,” becomes “tiny gusts / of history waft[ing]” community rituals—“the gatherings of births, graduations, / weddings, funerals, celebrations”—“into decades collecting / but never filling [the jar] to the top,” instead infusing the space of life, of memory with the “subtle, still surprising breath of God” (20-7).

And that, I think, is one reason we disturb the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves: because doing so draws us together in bonds of imagination, kinship, and shared memory, such that, like Adam and Eve, we are infused with the breath of God and so become living souls, living communities.

And that, I think, is one thing poets and poetry, critics and criticism are for.

Discuss at your leisure.

7 thoughts on “Beyond Prescription, Part 4”

  1. For the record, I enjoy the boundary drawing and theorizing too. But I think that also needs to be paired with deep engagement with texts.

    That’s really, in fact, part of what motivated me to start the three Friday features that I (try to) run on AMV: Short Story Friday, Payday Poetry and Weekend (Re)Visitor. Granted, the conversation around those doesn’t always yield grand insights. On the other hand, I almost always learn something from the exercise either from my own readings or from the comments that are made by others. In particular, this last go round with Salvador really brought out some aspects to the novel that I had missed and that make it a much richer, more important work than it already is, in my opinion.

    It’s also why I try to review every issue of Irreantum (even if the review comes late).

    And not to be flippant about your reading, which I think is great, but I also have to add that: disturbing the dust can also cause us to sneeze — and sneezes are both funny and orgasmic and a bit terrifying. Plus there’s the danger of the devil sneaking in, which is why we say (God) bless you.

  2. Tyler wrote: “I sense I’m missing something because I don’t have access to the thirty years worth of proceedings from the AML annual meeting.”

    Good point. Since I’m 2200 miles away from BYU’s library, I’ve been planning to make copies of all the annuals on a future visit or have someone do it for me.

    I would have thought that the AML would at least get the Tables of Content for the annuals on line. Heck, if I had copies of the TOCs from each year, I’d prepare the file for them. It doesn’t take that long!

  3. The only issues I have are 1983, 2000, 2001 and 2003. I’ll try to get copies or scans of the TOCs of other years. If I can get a significant portion of the total, I’ll go ahead and compile a TOC for all years, post it here and offer it to the AML.

  4. I may have the same issues you do (2000, 2001, 2003), but I’ll see if I can track mine down and fill in any gaps (I might have 2002).

  5. For the record, I enjoy the boundary drawing and theorizing too. But I think that also needs to be paired with deep engagement with texts.

    As do I, which is one reason I decided to get more textual today instead of engaging Givens’ taxonomy as I’d like to—that is, in conjunction with literary texts. (I plan to come back to that as I continue to develop my theoretical perspective, but right now I have neither the time nor the intellectual reserves to get the job done as I’d like to. Darn grad school.) That’s something I don’t think Givens does particularly well in People of Paradox: use his taxonomy as a means of engagement with the cultural history he presents in the second half of book. I also think his tensions could be pushed a bit further in some instances, but that’s something for another post.

    As for your reading of dust and rose leaves and such: I like it. That’s something I hadn’t considered in my own engagement of the poem.

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